2023 in 10 stories from British Antarctic Survey
30 December, 2023
Every year at British Antarctic Survey is a huge team effort. What we do couldn’t happen without every one our talented staff – whether they are doing the legwork of getting hundreds of people to our research stations or ship, keeping everyone safe and well fed, facilitating or doing science in the field and at our Cambridge HQ, collaborating with partners, or planning for the future.
As 2023 draws to a close, here’s 10 of the stories that shaped our year – featuring penguin ups and downs, the first science mission on the RRS Sir David Attenborough, some major climate science stories, and an unexpected brush with the celebrity world.
1. It was a big year for big icebergs
Bookending the year, these icy monoliths are part of the natural lifecycle of ice shelves. In January 2023, A81 (1550 km2) broke free when a large crack in the ice, Chasm-1, extended across the entire ice shelf. Home to the BAS Halley Research Station, the Brunt Ice Shelf is one of the most closely monitored ice shelves on the planet. The research station was moved 21km to the other side of the chasm in 2016 in preparation for the calving.
Meanwhile, several notable icebergs were on the move in the Southern Ocean. Iceberg A76a (3,200 km2), began its approach to South Georgia, sparking concern around the impact it could have on local wildlife and the shallower seabed near the archipelago. Then at the start of December 2023, the largest iceberg in the world, A23a (3,900 km2), entered the Southern Ocean after being grounded in the Weddell Sea sector since 1976.
2. BIOPOLE was the first science cruise on RRS Sir David Attenborough
After several seasons of testing and trials, RRS Sir David Attenborough departed Falkland Islands for it’s first science mission on 20 November 2023. The BIOPOLE cruise investigated how Antarctic ecosystems and sea ice drive global ocean cycles of carbon and nutrients. Their results will help us understand how climate change is affecting the Southern Ocean and the organisms that live there, from microscopic marine plants and tiny copepods to charismatic penguins and whales, and their roles in regulating our climate and keeping our oceans healthy and productive.
The BIOPOLE cruise represents part of a second phase of trialling Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO) as an alternative fuel on the RRS Sir David Attenborough. Emissions from shipping activities account for approximately 60% of our carbon footprint, so having a pathway to net zero by 2040 that includes a viable low-carbon fuel would be an important development.
3. Jennifer Coolidge shone a spotlight on the Thwaites Glacier
Thwaites Glacier is one of the fastest-melting glaciers in the world. In February 2023, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration shared first findings from under the glacier at the grounding zone – where we could see how and where significant melt under the ice shelf is happening for the first time. They revealed weaker areas of irregular rifts which are melting 10 times faster than the glacier at large.
But then – in a development no one saw coming – lead authors Dr Britney Schmidt and Dr Peter Davis were named in the 2023 TIME100 annual list of the most influential people in the world. Jennifer Coolidge used her opening speech to call on celebrities to use their platforms to promote important science. Our inbox is always open, Jennifer!
4. We talked you through Antarctic sea ice record lows
Over the past seven years, sea ice around Antarctica has decreased significantly. 2023’s summer (February) and winter (August) sea ice extents were both record breaking lows – exceeding the previous records set in 2022. This series of extreme, record lows over several years have not been seen before, and as a result, scientists are asking if Antarctic sea ice has entered a new regime – one where sea ice is less resilient and covers a decreasing area of the Southern Ocean.
BAS scientists were kept very busy providing nuanced interpretation of this news for global media, as well as publishing more detailed analysis in The Conversation, The Guardian, and BAS’ news-commentary series Beyond the Ice.
5. Emperor penguins, lost and found
Land-fast sea ice is an essential habitat for emperor penguins, and in August 2023 BAS scientists said that total sea ice loss in the Bellingshausen Sea region had resulted in an unprecedented scale of breeding failure in 2022-23. Satellite images that showed the early loss of sea ice at breeding sites in the season was well before chicks would have developed waterproof feathers.
Satellite surveys can also reveal good news. In January 2023, we reported the discovery of a penguin colony at Verleger Point in West Antarctica, bringing the total of known emperor penguin colonies to 66. The birds’ guano leaves a distinctive brown area on the white ice, making colonies visible from space with very-high resolution satellite imagery.
6. Important predictions for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet
In October 2023, BAS scientists predicted that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will continue to increase its rate of melting over the rest of the century, no matter how much we reduce fossil fuel use.
Scientists ran simulations on the UK’s national supercomputer to investigate ocean-driven melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. They found no significant difference between mid-range emissions scenarios and the most ambitious targets of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Even under a best-case scenario of 1.5°C global temperature rise, melting will increase three times faster than during the 20th century.
Lead author Dr Kaitlin Naughten, from British Antarctic Survey, said:
“The results suggest that if we wanted to preserve the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, we would have needed action on climate change decades ago. What we do now to rapidly reduce fossil fuel usage will help to slow the rate of sea level rise in the long term. The slower sea level changes, the easier it will be for governments and society to adapt to.”
7. The new Discovery Building became blue
The Discovery Building, a new scientific and operational support facility at Rothera Research Station, was made weathertight, with the cladding complete and an operations tower installed during the 2022-23 summer season. As 2023 draws to a close, the construction teams out in Antarctica for the 2023-24 season are adding windows, as well as continuing the interior works.
8. Plastics were not fantastic
BAS scientists published new evidence of microplastics found in Antarctic krill. As krill is a key part of the Antarctic diet, that means plastic is everywhere in the polar food chain. Later in the year, a separate BAS study found microplastics at every depth of the sea in South Georgia, suggesting that water dynamics and animals are further mixing plastic pollution into the ocean.
9. Avian Influenza arrived in the Antarctic Region
In October 2023, we unfortunately confirmed the first cases of Avian Influenza (HPAI-H5N1) in the Antarctic Region on Bird Island in South Georgia. It’s most likely to have been carried by returning migrating birds from South America, where there’s a high number of cases.
We’re working closely with Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands, led by their tiered plan to monitor and manage the outbreak. The majority of animal-handling fieldwork is suspended, and there’s lots of biosecurity measures in place.
Bird Island is one of the most closely monitored seabird colonies in the world, thanks to long term work at our research station. We’re hugely appreciative of the teams working at our Bird Island and King Edward Point Research Stations for the work they are continuing to do to monitor seabirds like wandering albatross, black-browed albatross, grey-headed albatross, northern and southern giant petrels, gentoo penguins and macaroni penguins.
10. New maps, new data
If you own a UK-published map of Antarctica, it was probably created by the cartographers at British Antarctic Survey. In June 2023, we released the latest edition map of Antarctica and the Arctic, containing brand new sea ice extent data, updated towns and airports in the Arctic, and new ice shelf outlines in Antarctica after the recent calving of giant icebergs. These flagship maps require regular updates to keep track of these fast changing and fragile environments.
Teams at BAS also continued to collaborate with partners around the world to make crucial Antarctic data available for scientists to use. One particularly big project was the release of Bedmap3! This amazing resource makes data on Antarctic ice thickness and bed topography easily available. The latest update included 84 new surveys, 1.9 million kilometres of measurements, and 52 million new data points. Below is an example of the kind of science that can be done with this data.
Best wishes for 2024 from all of us at British Antarctic Survey.
Banner image: stars above Reptile Ridge near Rothera Research Station, by Kristen Brown.